NEW YORK–When former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg oversaw the creation of thousands of dedicated bicycle lanes on traffic-clogged streets, many locals were astonished (and angry). But many of those nay-sayers have surprised themselves by discovering how easy–and healthy, and better for the environment—it is to ride a bike to work or to meet with friends.
But what do you do with your bike when you’re done with it? Leave it by the side of the road to be picked up as trash and dumped in parts unknown?
Why not recycle it instead?
One of those applauding the city’s bike-lane initiative was Karen Overton, 51, founder of New York City’s Recycle-a-Bicycle (RAB). “Don’t throw your bike out!” she says with a laugh. “RAB will take it, no matter what condition it’s in.” A bike that’s rusted or damaged can be disassembled; the usable parts are salvaged and the rest recycled. In 2013, in fact, RAB salvaged over 1,800 bicycles and refurbished over 500 of them, selling them for funds that are recycled back into the program, and keeping over 45,000 pounds of metal waste from ending up as landfill. And it gave over 1,000 students new skills, new encouragement, new strength, and new pride in their accomplishments.
“The kids are so proud when they earn a bike, especially when it’s one that they reassembled themselves. It means freedom to them, and mobility.”
Formerly with the advocacy group Transportation Alternatives, Karen began working with them and the Children’s Aid Society in the early 1990s on their after-school programs in the Washington Heights neighborhood of northern Manhattan. “About ninety percent of the population there is Dominican, and many of the kids didn’t speak English well,” she says. “We set up a program where we salvaged discarded bikes, and taught the kids how to restore them. They had to come to the sessions and do the work in order to earn the right to have their own bikes. That kept them motivated.”
Karen knows what the power of pedaling can do for people in need. She grew up in a rather homogenous suburb of Syracuse, New York, and became an exchange student while in high school in a small city in the heart of coffee-growing country in the state of Sao Paolo, Brazil. “My host father was a doctor, and he’d take me with him on his rounds to rural clinics. It was the first time I was exposed to diversity and extreme poverty,” she says, “and it was very upsetting to see how people lived with so much inequality.”
That experience planted the seeds for her future. She returned to America and attended the State University of New York in Albany, majoring in Latin American studies and studying urban planning as well. She then went to work for the Institute for Transportation Development Policy—“We had a ‘Bikes Not Bombs’ program and sent unwanted bikes in solidarity to the Contras in Nicaragua,” she says–and then became the director of Bikes for Africa in 1990, which took her to Mozambique. “We were able to get a grant that got bicycles to women who grew food but had no way to get it to market. It was a huge deal for them to have a bike—it gave them a future.” She helped set up the Beira Bicycle Bank in the second largest Mozambican city, and then returned to the States, where she began to work for Transportation Alternatives.
RAB became independent of Transportation Alternatives in 1998, so they could focus on recycling as well as education. They now have two stores (one on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and the other in Brooklyn), and the sales and repairs of the bikes there help support their youth job training programs. They have 12 employees, 50 volunteer ride marshals, 100 volunteer bike mechanics, and thousands of customers and advocates spreading the word about the wonders of urban riding. There’s also an RAB education center in Long Island City, Queens, and 17 school-based programs. Younger students can participate in the Earn-a-Bike program, and older students can receive credits for bicycle mechanic training, which is a skill for which there is an intense demand–meaning that highly trained bike mechanics will be able to find jobs in a tough market. Students also learn about riding safely as well as all the important health benefits that come with regular exercise.
“The kids are so proud when they earn a bike, especially when it’s one that they reassembled themselves,” Karen says. “It means freedom to them, and mobility. They can let their siblings or their parents ride it to work, to save money, too.”
As a firm believer in sustainable cycling, RAB also focuses on community advocacy, with initiatives such as Bike Bonanzas, where bikes are given for free to kids who can’t afford them otherwise (over 300 bikes were distributed in 2013); the League of American Bicyclists’ National Bike Summit; and an annual Youth Bike Summit. Ever since the bike lanes opened in the city, it’s been easier to convince people that bike riding is a viable alternative to cars and mass transit. RAB also has a Kids Ride Club, where over 100 youth collectively pedal more than 10,000 miles each season.
“I’m not a gearhead,” Karen says with a laugh. “But I love to save things from the trash. It makes me happy when I can bring a bike back to life.”
Want to get involved?
Recycle-A-Bicycle (RAB) utilizes the bicycle as a resource to foster youth development, environmental education, community engagement, and healthy living. Through retail storefronts, social entrepreneurship, and innovative programs, Recycle-A-Bicycle empowers the youth of New York City and beyond. RAB is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization. Donations are tax deductible and purchases from our storefronts support our youth education programs.
Video created by Nina Lin, a graduate of a Recycle-A-Bicycle program and current college student at SUNY Stony Brook